The Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, in this interview, speaks on the current hajj operation, and how the commission plans to make state pilgrims welfare boards economically viable to fund their activities.
How has NAHCON fared in the operation of 2018 hajj?
The airlift is moving steady as planned and we have not recorded any major consular or security issue either at home or over there in Saudi Arabia. The arrival of the pilgrims, protocol arrangement and the immigration process over there are quite commendable. The previous experience of long-hour delay is now a matter of history. Pilgrims are cleared with speed, courtesy to the biometric capturing that has been conducted here.
The accommodation is Medina is satisfactory, and the proximity to haram is maximum eight to ten-minute work for a slow walker. But the average time is five minutes. The feeding arrangement is okay and the menu has been packaged is such a way that even those with diabetes can take the food without injuring their health.
Movements have commenced from medina to Makkah and there is no report of breakdown of vehicles. The speed at which pilgrims are being accommodated in Makkah compared to the previous years has improved tremendously. We are happy with the operation so far and we will remain committed to ensure that we serve the pilgrims to the best of our ability.
We are indeed grateful to the Saudi mission in Nigeria and the company that handles the biometric capturing. They have been very cooperative and decentralized their operation as requested by the President. That has eased the tension and apprehension initially created in the minds of pilgrims.
To ensure that we get it right this time, we set up the central coordinating team, which is headed by my humble self. We meet periodically and sometimes daily to review the day operation and forecast the next 74 hours’ operation. That is why very few airports are very active in terms of the airlift. We try to concentrate on one departure centre, clear the pilgrims in that centre before we move to the next one. The long-hour delay before pilgrims are airlifted have been reduced.
You recently inspected facilities at the FCT hajj camp. Was it a collaboration with the FCT board?
Hajj camps are owned by the state governments but the commission has to ensure that they are habitable. There is proper synergy between us and the state boards.
By the year 2019, most of the hajj camps across the country will have a befitting hotel-like accommodation, not the dormitory-like that we have now. We are going to have a befitting clinics that will even be used after hajj operation and would serve the community in those areas. Water will be provided and mosques will be upgraded. We will have event centres in most of the camps and they will serve as a source of revenue for the maintenance. And the hotel-like accommodation would be used outside hajj to generate revenue for maintenance. What we are doing now is to make the best use of hajj development levy to have the infrastructure across for two purposes. One to give the pilgrims the first impression of what he’s going to meet in Saudi Arabia and secondly to use those infrastructure as a source of generating revenue, so that the revenue generated would be shared between the state and the commission. In the long run, state governors don’t need to fund hajj operation in their state. Through that revenue, the boards will be able to fund their activities, so that if there is a challenge of funding hajj activities, hajj operation would not suffer.
For hajj saving scheme, after the 2018 hajj, the proper framework would be made public on its implementation. It will enable the pilgrims save gradually, it will enable the government and the board plan for next five-year hajj. The money that will be collected would be invested in halal activities and the profit generated would be shared between the pilgrims whose money will be invested and the hajj commission.
Are there still cases of overstay or absconding?
Many years ago, after hajj activities, thousands would not return. But now, things have changed. How did we achieve the reduction? One is the civic education and second, the introduction of e-passport for hajj. Now people cannot just use the passport to go to Saudi Arabia and throw away the passport and then abscond. That e-passport has contributed greatly. And the data capturing process has also helped. More importantly is the introduction of guarantors by the commission. Anybody who wants to go to hajj must have a guarantor who must be either a jum’at imam, district head or a civil servant not below the rank of grade level 12. Those that served as guarantors for five pilgrims who absconded last year are still reporting to the DSS office, and they will not stop until those people come back. They have a time line and if it elapses without those people returning, the security agency would prosecute them for aiding absconding and human trafficking which is punishable under Nigerian law. Now people are becoming careful. If they are not sure of the pilgrim’s intention, they will not sign.